By Jack Chang
jchang@sacbee.com
Published: Monday, Mar. 21, 2011 – 12:00 am | Page 1A

For just a moment during the state Republican Party convention this past weekend, hundreds of GOP delegates felt the excitement of the presidential race gearing up nationwide.

Fox News commentator Frank Luntz asked the delegates gathered at the Hyatt Regency Sacramento to applaud their support for potential candidates such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. The hotel ballroom erupted in cheers as the names of presidential hopefuls flew by.

Now that the convention is over, California Republicans shouldn’t expect many more invitations for input.

The nation’s biggest state has already become a Democratic bastion and a lost cause for Republican presidential candidates in the general election.

A Democratic-authored bill making its way through the Legislature could further shrink the state’s cachet by pushing back next year’s primary to June 5. The proposed move could turn California into little more than an epilogue in the GOP presidential race.

If anything, the just-concluded convention laid out the state’s already humble role in presidential politics by drawing only two long-shot potential candidates – Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton.

Nowhere in sight were GOP stars such as Gingrich, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin or former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, all of them mentioned as possible presidential material. Most of the convention action focused on how to deal with voter-approved Proposition 14, the open-primary measure, which all but cut out parties from the nominating process. The proposition didn’t affect presidential primaries.

“(California) is always going to play a significant role in financing whoever the next Republican candidate is going to be,” said outgoing party Treasurer Keith Carlson. “If they move the nomination back, of course California is going to be hurt by the fact that much of the nation may have already decided the outcome.”

Ron Nehring, who finished his term as state GOP chairman Sunday, said the primary proposal by Assemblyman Paul Fong, D-Cupertino, was designed to dissuade state Republicans from turning out next year.

“(Fong) wants to make California irrelevant in the presidential nominating process for one of our two major parties,” Nehring said. “Everybody knows that states that vote earlier have more influence, provided that you don’t bunch everybody up on the same day.”

Fong said his proposal, Assembly Bill 80, would save the state $100 million by consolidating the presidential and state primaries. He said reducing the number of statewide elections next year would actually encourage more voter turnout.

“For the Republican Party, it might not be wrapped up yet,” Fong said of the presidential primary. “It may go all the way to the end.”

Joel Fox, president of the Small Business Action Committee, said the political calculus for the primary debate hinged on the ongoing budget battle and Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to ask voters to extend about $11 billion in tax increases.

If the budget gridlock continues, more initiatives can be expected next year, with voters possibly asked to weigh in on taxes and reforms such as a spending cap and pension changes, Fox said.

Discouraging Republican turnout by pushing back the primary date would help the success of any tax measures on the ballot, Fox said. Complicating that calculus, GOP delegates voted Sunday to oppose “any tax extension, new taxes, or tax increases by the Legislature” – even if tied to reforms.

“What some of us have been saying is there is a potential for an initiative war in 2012, especially if the budget isn’t solved,” Fox said. “So you can see all kinds of proposals that both sides don’t want.”

Some Republican convention delegates, however, weren’t so quick to count out the Golden State in the presidential race.

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